Vox’s scent lingered in the air when he awoke but when he opened his eyes, only Ignatius stood next to the slab.
“Welcome back”, the sanguinary priest said quietly. He had just finished performing the rite that woke Titus and watched closely as his patient emerged from the slumber.
“You’ll feel a little weak but don’t worry”, he said in a friendly fashion. “It should pass quickly. It’s almost noon. You can join the meal and the rest of the training. Just take it a little easy.”
Titus sat up, waiting until the moment of vertigo had passed and looked around. He was indeed hungry.
Dankwart was in the room. Titus felt about as eloquent as his apothecary, so only nods passed between them.
Shortly afterwards, Tiberius joined them. He was accompanied by Serebus Rogan, the Iron Hand who had taken over as their gunner on Zenith. They were trailed by a servitor. That was basically a basket on wheels, steered by the upper body of an undernourished human and carried Titus’ armour.
Lacking the aggressive demeanour Titus had grown used to, Rogan turned out to be a competent assistant for Tiberius. They worked together seamlessly.
Titus meanwhile kept silent and avoided gazes wherever he could. The shame about the recent events felt like an actual weight on his shoulders.
At least he started to feel better when the armour woke around him. He had been cold after his induced sleep. As soon as the polymer got energy from the power core of his backpack, the machine spirit corrected this state of affairs.
The brothers around him seemed to form a stream of life that pushed him along and soon, Titus found himself walking towards the meal with Rogan. Tiberius had to make a detour to the mechanicum for some arcane purpose and the apothecaries had not finished blessing the surgery.
“It’s good you’re back, sergeant”, the Iron Hand began in easy tones which only managed to unnerve Titus. Apparently, he had awoken to another world. It was a world in which the scarred face of Serebus Rogan was illuminated with a lopsided grin while he spoke to him and Titus felt even more out of place in it than before.
“We’ve been wiping the floor with Aegis”, the Iron Hand continued unperturbed. “About time they got some leadership again.”
“Who led them?”, Titus inquired.
“No one I could detect”, Rogan laughed with grim satisfaction. “We already had to second Tobias to them to get a bit of resistance.”
Titus eyed him from the side.
“So, this chip in your armour happened during polishing?”, he asked sceptically. The silver imperialis on Rogan’s torso piece was split to the plate. It looked like it had been caused by a powerful sword strike and since it had not been repaired yet, it must have happened this morning.
“Totally self-inflicted”, the Iron Hand claimed with a glint in his eyes.
“I’ll try to get them back into line”, Titus promised uncertainly.
“You do that!”, Rogan encouraged him.
Titus highly doubted that he could get Aegis to anything but the most basic form of obedience. Honourable warriors like they were would not violate the chain of command. Much.
When they reached the mess, Grimfang and Vox were already inside. They were leaning against the wall, immersed in animated conversation. While Rogan strode confidently towards them, Titus hesitated for a heartbeat. Vox stood with her back turned to him. Her voice was quiet but audible and the way Grimfang was beaming at her, made his stomach turn. This man had protected her where he had failed. How would he handle the situation between them?
“No, you didn’t!”, the white wolf just said and laughed hugely. His smile overflowed with genuine delight.
“Of course I did, what do you take me for?”, Vox answered brazenly. “My point is”, she continued. “Laraise enjoyed torturing me far more than she would have enjoyed fucking me and still, she was uncorrupted. There was no freakin’ daemon on her I could detect. So, either the Great Deceiver himself held his hand over her, or – and I deem this far more likely – he didn’t. And that proves it for me: Human first. Then daemon.”
“Hey, serge. What’s up?”, Rogan interrupted them and they both turned. Vox twitched to attention when she spotted Titus a step behind. Her expression told him that she was shocked at the sight.
“Sergeant”, she said guardedly. “I thought you’d be with Tiberius.”
Whom she would have felt coming and could have prepared herself for, Titus could not help thinking.
“He’s in the workshops”, was all he found to say. She had probably known that, he scolded himself. For a moment, their gazes locked and all the lightness was gone. Only sorrow persisted between them and when she averted her gaze, she left him to crumble alone.
Had they been among themselves, Titus might have found the right words. He was sorry for what he had done. He might have managed to say so, had not Grimfang inquired: “How was your time, sergeant?”
Unfortunately, the bearing of smug disapproval accompanying his words went right up Titus’ nose.
“Restful and uneventful”, he replied and added: “I’m itching to kick you over the training grounds.”
“I’d like to see you try!”, the other growled. “I’ve planned a nice close combat unit after lunch. That will totally allow for a little personal sparring.”
“Don’t overdo it”, Titus said icily. “Gladius still needs you.”
“Yeah”, the man stated coolly. “I pride myself on that.”
“What were you talking about, serge?”, Rogan cut in before things could get even further out of hand. “Sounded amusing.”
“Vox was telling me about his last meeting with Inquisitor Laraise”, Grimfang answered.
“And?”, the Iron Hand wanted to know. “Why did he fail to shoot her down this time?”
Grimfang grinned evilly.
“Now, now Rogan. I told you it was their last meeting.”
“You really got rid of her?”, Rogan asked in delighted surprise. Vox stopped pinching the bridge of her nose and looked at him with a lopsided grin. Since the rest of Gladius walked in at this point, she just waggled her eyebrows conspiratorially at the Iron Hand.
“You two will have time to talk later”, Grimfang decided and shooed them towards the table.
Even after this very bad start, the meal was quite enjoyable. That Gladius knew no solemnity at mealtimes, Titus had already learned but they seemed particularly animated today. Bent on conversation, the group managed to get half a war story out of Tiberius before Titus was distracted by his neighbours addressing him. He found himself between Irdan Yorg and Ignatius, who both opted for a calm, respectful manner in talking to him. This development put him firmly out of his depth. Of course, he had heard Ignatius’ promise to Dankwart but that this should be the result was astounding. Whatever had he told his comrades?
Titus got the distinct impression that he had not been forgiven but he perceived that he had been granted another chance.
This feeling, he took along to the prayer and used the moments of quiet contemplation to think.
Ignatius had asked him why he would not stop making errors. His deeds were no simple mistakes. They were born of the pain inside him, piling harm on misconduct on offence. The sanguinary priest had been right: Titus had not dared to face himself since Zenith, just lashed out like a wounded animal. While the familiar litanies washed over him, Watch Sergeant Titus of the Ultramarines finally confronted the tangled mess his soul had become. Reflected in the honest words of a well meaning man, he finally saw it all.
On his knees in the circle of his comrades, Titus raised his inner voice to the Emperor. To ask for absolution did not cross his mind but he prayed for strength. The strength to stop what he was doing and the guidance to find his way out of the maze of self-righteous stupidity he had gotten lost in.
And he prayed for Vox to be alright. He would only be able to see her from afar from now on. That she would be alright among new friends was of the utmost importance to him.
When he rose with the others, Titus felt like he had been crippled again but he had found his way out of the weakness before. He vowed that he would struggle towards strength and resilience from now on.
They still had more than three weeks back to Erioch which turned out to be quite enjoyable. Most of the brothers were at least polite if not friendly towards him and he tried to honour their efforts in the same manner. Only the situation with Grimfang remained difficult. Titus did his best not to get upset because he perceived the Space Wolf reigning himself in at every turn. It was hard to notice for the cultivated Ultramarine but his experience with the Heratrocks granted him enough insight to spot the signs. Bubbling anger was turned away from him, gruff replies softened and how could the man fathom what he did to Titus with every friendly gesture towards Vox? He was merely protecting a friend.
All in all, Titus had to concede that Ignatius had worked miracles.
Unless they specifically asked for it, neither Vox nor he were ever alone during the day and the comrades managed to make their delicate dance around them appear quite natural in a rough and ready fashion. They always gave the impression that here were hard boys, talking to other hard boys, who never took anyone’s feelings into consideration whatsoever.
This way, their journey unfolded in pleasant uneventfulness and both of them were stable enough until their last jump. It was the longest they would undertake and Titus noticed how much Vox suffered under the sleep deprivation.
Once he saw her waver. It happened while Grimfang and Tiberius were sparring and everybody else was ordered to watch and give feedback. Vox leaned against the wall next to the small arena they had marked out and Titus stood on the other side. Suddenly, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back. He had taken three steps towards her before he was aware of it and his movement alarmed Dankwart. The sanguinary priest guided her out of the room for a few minutes. When they returned, the duel was over. Titus had to concentrate on his match against Tobias Caregar and afterwards, Vox seemed stable again. Of course, everyone had noticed the incident but her fight against Irdan Yorg had already taken place and they were nearing the end of the training. Therefore, her changed demeanour and widened pupils passed mostly unnoticed. Had he not overheard the apothecaries talking, Titus might have missed it as well.
After the prayer this evening, he walked with Tiberius and caught himself idly following Vox. While the two Ultramarines discussed a specific movement pattern which Titus had recently developed for Aegis, he was half relieved and half jealous to see that Dankwart kept by her side. They had only two nights worth of travel left before they would leave the warp for Erioch. The assumption beckoned that Dankwart would keep her company in her forced watch.
At this point, his feelings definitely tipped towards jealousy. He missed their time together more than he could say. Vox had left a hole inside him he could never have anticipated but he truly feared to talk to her after everything.
There was nothing more prudent to do than taking the next corridor away from them. She had to be alright among other friends.
“Tiberius?”, Titus asked.
“Why did you suggest for me to be promoted?”
Tiberius shot him a sidelong glance.
“Because I thought you wanted to protect Vox”, he replied. “And that’s hard if you don’t have the authority to order people aside.” They did a few steps in silence.
“Why do you ask?”, his fellow Ultramarine inquired and Titus saw that he moved his third arm slightly. It was the gesture he always made when he got nervous.
“Vox was angry as hell about me becoming bailsman and mentioned that the promotion was a factor”, Titus told him with a faraway look in his grey eyes.
Again, Tiberius shot him a glance. Titus knew that for his techmarine the rank was a problem as well. He had to give him time to frame his words.
“We… noticed that you two were cracking up after the trial but we didn’t know why”, he said cautiously.
“I’m not certain either”, Titus had to admit.
“Did you ask him?”
“No”, Titus said gravely. “I promised not to ask anything.”
“But you’re a sergeant now. You could have.”
“Maybe. But I promised”, Titus said meekly.
The techmarine’s grey eyes were full of slightly panicky concern when he said: “I… keep thinking that we should have talked while Vox was gone with his chapter.”
Titus had to grin humourlessly for a moment.
“And what would we have said?”, he inquired.
“I don’t know”, Tiberius said with a shrug of his broad shoulders and an uncertain gesture of his third arm. “Anything. Just share our concern. Ensure one another that we can trust… him. I don’t know about you but I was worried as hell and I could have used some talk. What Ignatius makes us pull off now, is just right I feel”, he said. “But on Zenith we left each other alone because Vox always was the one who handled these things. Who got us talking… And when he returned, there was just no time before you learned his… her secret… I keep thinking that one thing or the other wouldn’t have been so bad but this way things got ugly… started to fester so to say.” The techmarine drew a deep breath. “What I’m trying to say here is that I’m deeply sorry how things went and I wish you’d sort yourselves out. You were an incredibly good team. It… hurts me to see you like this.”
Titus looked at nothing for a while. He was grateful that Tiberius confided this in him and he had to smile about how awkward they both were proving. His brother was absolutely right. The male members of Aegis were pretty useless when it came to forming deep, meaningful connections. In other constellations it might have been different but this way, Vox had become the hub of their cohesion and, for the convenience of this, they had missed their opportunity to put in the work themselves.
Titus shared the brother’s wish. The sheer distance to Vox hurt him. He longed to bridge the gap but he hit a very solid problem head-on.
“She told me to stay away from her”, he said meekly.
“On Zenith before she came to help you against the Tyranids.”
“And she used these words?”, Tiberius inquired.
“‘Stay away from me’ is very hard to interpret otherwise.”
Tiberius stared at him for a moment.
“Whatever!”, he then burst out.
“You two need to talk!”
Titus shot him a lopsided look and actually had to smile.
“Any tips on how to approach her? You might have noticed that I screwed up hard.”
Tiberius sighed and then laughed.
“Sergeant, I talk to machine spirits. They don’t need counsel in love.”
Titus blushed like a sunset.
“I’m not in…”
“Yes, you are”, Tiberius interrupted him probably out of panicky embarrassment. “You were from the start. Vox got you free from the Inquisition at great personal risk and you two have been sticking together ever since. She really tried to hold you off and you just wouldn’t budge.”
“Vox never tried to hold me… Yes alright, she did, but…”
“I think you should ask yourself, what has changed.”
“Since when?”, Titus asked in bewilderment.
“Since you found out.”
They had to stop their conversation at this point because they were nearing the quarters. All of them converged here at this time of day. They did not relish the thought to be overheard by one of Gladius. Or worse, Vox and Dankwart.
When they reached their rooms, they turned to each other for a moment.
“Thank you, brother”, Titus said. “I’ll ponder that question.”
“I hope it helps, serge.”
They looked at each other for a moment and somehow, things got awkward again. It was Titus who first looked away.
“Good night, Tiberius”, he said.
“Good night, Titus”, Tiberius said and patted him clumsily on the shoulder. With his third arm. Titus had to laugh. Yes, that was Aegis in a nutshell. Specialists who only stopped thinking in social situations.